The Science Behind Climate Change

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To commemorate Earth Day and the last installment of my blog, I think it’s apropos to talk about our mother planet.  You see, it’s not like we can relocate to another habitable planet within our solar system.  As a species, we treat our planet like crap.  Over polluted air, total disregard to waterbodies and the rolling back of regulations puts us in a crucial time within our planet’s history and the repercussions of our negligence will affect our children and our children’s children.  It seems we have forgotten that we all play a crucial part in establishing a legacy.  Although most of us won’t find the cure of cancer or some technological breakthrough, our legacy should be the protection of our planet from the ravages of climate change.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  I’m sure every little bit helps.

We may have differing views on what constitutes climate change and I cannot say I have all the answers.  What I do have is an intermediate understanding of the science behind climate change and it is the physical, chemical, and biological background that anyone who gets into Environmental Health or Environmental Engineering must have in order to graduate.  With higher temperatures, more droughts, wilder weather patterns, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels if there was one culprit that we can see point our finger to is rising CO2 levels.  Other scientists will also want to mention methane and I would have to agree, but for the sake of this blog I will just touch base on the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

As a student in the Environmental and Occupational Health program, I am aware of the devastating effects carbon dioxide has on our climate.  When 94% of the scientific community, including agencies and advisory bodies such as NASA, NOAA, USDA, USGS, the EPA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agrees on the dangers of increased fossil fuel usage, there is definitely a strong positive correlation behind the claims that our climate is changing faster than at any time in recorded human history.  We understand the concept of climate change; therefore, let’s review the science behind carbon dioxide and climate change.

Carbon dioxide keeps our planet habitable, but it is the concentration that causes the most problems.  Back in the 19th century, carbon dioxide was a recently discovered gas.  Scientists realized back then that carbon dioxide (CO2) had an effect of preventing heat generated by the Sun from radiating back into space.  The trapping of heat is what keeps Earth at a hospitable temperature, but the concentration of CO2 is what causes the most concern.

CO2 concentrations have risen dramatically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Carbon dioxide is released when fossil fuels are burned and humans are causing a great percentage of the 2.4 million pounds of CO2 being released into the atmosphere every second.  Think about that for a second.  Most of the 2.4 million pounds of CO2 being released every second is from human activities.  That is a staggering number, but what are we doing as individuals to combat one of the most problematic issues of our time?  Let’s come back to this topic later.

Scientists have reviewed the results and they are not favorable.  The Earth’s temperature has risen about 1.4o Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century, but the trend from 1950 on has shown the greatest acceleration.  Global temperatures in 2016 were the warmest on record since 1880, the first year these types of records began.  That is not the worst part.  Prior to 2016, 2015 was the warmest.  Prior to 2015, 2014 was the warmest.  We have been breaking temperatures and setting records 3 years in a row.

Climate change deniers always say, “If the records only go back until 1880, how do we know that 2016 was the hottest year on record?”  The answer lies in ice cores.  Ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica allow scientists to peer back 800,000 years into our climatological past and compare the CO2 levels back then to the CO2 levels present today and guess what they found?  They found that atmospheric CO2 levels have stayed between 170 and 300 parts per million the past 800,000 years.  However, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, around 1750, CO2 levels have soared from 280 to more than 400 parts per million today.  The rise in CO2 levels match up graphically with the rise of CO2 from human activities.

Another argument from climate change skeptics is, “The Earth has ‘natural cycles’ of warming and cooling.  How do we know that current day climate change is not a part of a natural warming cycle?”  By reviewing the facts regarding natural cycles we can find the answer.  One – The time scale that typically elapses from ice ages to warm periods happens over tens to hundreds of thousands of years.  There is no scientific model that explains what has happened over the past 100 years.  Two – Although the Sun’s energy output varies, over the past 100 years it has changed very little and its normal processes do not explain the current climate.  Three – Ice cores have given definitive proof of rising CO2 levels; however, additional scientific evidence has been found in tree rings, cave formations, coral reefs, lake bottoms, and ocean sediments.

With the rising levels of carbon dioxide matching up with the curve of fossil fuel emission from human activities, “the overwhelming evidence shows that carbon dioxide emissions are the dominating factor driving climate change.”

Individually, there are ways we can reduce our carbon footprint.  One of the easiest ways is to incorporate biking and walking for daily, run of the mill errands. The average motor vehicle emits roughly 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of gas burned.  Conservative figures equate this to 4.7 metric tons of CO2 emitted per 11,400 miles driven annually and fuel efficiency of 21mpg. Variables such as lower fuel economy and mileage driven will increase these values.  Nevertheless, these tailpipe emissions are something we can control.  If we use these values as a reference measure, making the conscious choice to reduce our carbon footprint becomes that much easier.

For more information on your automotive carbon footprint, visit http://www.fueleconomy.gov and click “Find a Car”.

For even more CO2 saving strategies, visit https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/.

Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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Gluten sensitivities (and Celiac disease) may be a result of a common virus

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Gluten free.  It seems everything sold nowadays is gluten free.  Gluten free this, gluten free that.  It appears the “gluten free” movement has exploded on the scene in recent years and common, ordinary products will use this health related buzzword just to get a second glance from consumers.  You know it’s gone too far when you can go to your local Whole Foods and sitting in the aisle is gluten free bar soap.  Yeah… I just love the taste of this soap.  Thank God, its gluten free or else I’d be gassy all night.

I recall the first time I heard about gluten.  It was about ten years ago and my employer just hired a new recruit.  At the weekly meeting, pizza was being served.  I noticed the new hire wasn’t eating any pizza, so I told him not to be nervous and it was okay to take a few slices.  There was plenty enough to go around.  He proceeded to tell me, “I can’t eat pizza.  The gluten in the pizza gives me the winds.”  Curious, I asked him about this issue.  He informed me, “That his system has difficulty breaking down the gluten in wheat.”  Working in a hospital, I was aware of celiac disease but never heard about this form of gluten sensitivity before that day.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks the villi in the stomach.  The villi are finger like projections that line the small intestine.  Their function is to create a large area for nutrient absorption.  If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, or rye, their body mounts an all-out attack on the small intestine.  The body detects gluten as a dangerous pathogen and acts accordingly.  As you can imagine, if these villi get damaged vital nutrients cannot be absorbed into the body and malnutrition is a result.  Therefore, people have to adhere to a strict, gluten-free diet.  Although symptoms will subside within a few weeks, damage to the intestines may take up to several years to heal.  In the United States, this disease afflicts less than 1% of the population or about 2.5 million people of which, most are undiagnosed.

New research suggests a virus may be to blame when people are afflicted by celiac disease.  Even though celiac disease afflicts less than 1% of the population, it is estimated that 30% of Americans carry the gene that makes them more susceptible to developing celiac disease.  Without going into the complicated theories behind gene expression, that is a big discrepancy.

A team of doctors who were studying reovirus – a common, benign virus that infects children – think it may be the trigger for developing celiac disease.  Experiments on genetically engineered mice (who were predisposed to celiac disease) showed that when these mice were fed gluten and subsequently exposed to reovirus, they developed the same immunological response against gluten that humans do.  But how does this translate to humans?  These same researchers took blood samples on people who have celiac disease and they found these people have anywhere from two-to-five-times the levels of specific reovirus antibodies.  They theorized that these people were exposed to reovirus sometime in their past and when the timing was right, celiac disease developed when there was an exposure to gluten.

The preliminary results are promising, but there is more work to be done.  The researchers will now try to develop a causal link between reovirus and the beginning of celiac disease.  They want to study 1000’s of children over the next several years before any concrete conclusions can be disclosed.  If the findings are favorable, this could lead to a reovirus vaccine which would help people who are predisposed to developing celiac disease.

When I hear people who do not have celiac disease complain about gluten, I have to admit I roll my eyes.  However, after these findings I will be more sensitive to the difficulties these people experience when eating gluten.  Testing for reovirus antibodies should be a first step into getting a handle on this relatively unknown disorder.  If the causal link is found, the health and well-being of sufferers will finally be addressed.

Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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Listeria bacteria can hide in the tissue of Romaine lettuce for 60 days

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Every week, I like to write about topics that I am currently learning about in my Environmental Health Microbiology class.  Sometimes it is easier than others since topics for the blog need to be interesting and relevant.  This week, an entry into foodborne illness seems necessary.

When it comes to foodborne illness, there are (4) main sources that take a pathogen from farm to consumers.  These bullet points will explain further.

  • Farm (A hen’s reproductive organs are infected leading to infected eggs)
  • Processing/Distribution (Pathogens from the intestine of a cow can contaminate a final meat product)
  • Retail/Food Service (Poor handling/hygiene) Remember, Typhoid Mary?
  • Consumer (Cross contamination or improper cooking/storage temperatures)

Each source has its own check and balances and mostly, human contamination comes into play whenever there is an outbreak of a certain pathogen.  However, this week’s blog will highlight a newly discovered avenue in pathogenic contamination.

Researchers at Purdue University found out that Listeria monocytogenes can actually live in the tissue of romaine lettuce.  I guess Caesar Salads are off the chopping block for a while.

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Luckily, L. monocytogenes is predominantly a mild bacterial infection that normally affects pregnant women, newborns, adults who are 65+, and the immunocompromised.  Even though Listeriosis is generally a mild infection for pregnant women, the unborn fetus could be inflicted with a severe disease, or even more traumatic a miscarriage.  Furthermore, adults 65+ and the immunocompromised could develop severe bloodstream infections, like sepsis or severe brain infections like meningitis or encephalitis.  Now the last two infections mentioned are serious threats and not to be taken lightly.  You might have seen commercials touting a bacterial meningitis vaccine for people over 50.  This is why this new discovery hits home for so many.  What starts off as something mild could turn deadly in a short amount of time.

Normally, post-harvest sanitation processes are enough to kill most foodborne pathogens.  However, L. monocytogenes can gain entry into the lettuce tissue in as little as 30 minutes using cracked seed coats, small tears in root tissue during germination, or just plain ordinary damaged plant tissue as a port of entry.

These bacteria can be killed by heat, but the reason it flourishes so well is that the products it infects are ready to eat and/or raw, like fruits (cantaloupes and apples) and vegetables (celery and sprouts), or deli meat and hot dogs.  In fact, a 2011 outbreak in contaminated cantaloupe was the 2nd most deadly foodborne bacterial outbreak in U.S. history with 33 deaths.  So much for it being a milder infection, right?

After a 2016 recall of contaminated pre-packaged salads, these researchers began to investigate the persistence of L. monocytogenes in romaine lettuce, since it is the fastest crop in terms of growth, export, and consumption.  They found that the bacteria can live up to 60 days or until the time of harvest.

Researchers are now focusing their attention on detection strategies of what may happen to the seeds and/or seedlings of romaine lettuce.  They want to find ways to strengthen pre-harvest control especially in the avenues of contamination.  Sanitizers only treat produce externally, so they are studying ways to minimize exposure of these pathogens in the soil, water, and seeds.  Hopefully, their research will lead to advancements that will prevent another deadly outbreak of Listeriosis.

Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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In war-torn Gaza, water pollution behind health woes

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Water, along with sunlight, is one of the two main ingredients for life.  One without the other would render our planet lifeless, but with our Sun having roughly 5 billion years left of fusing hydrogen into helium, it’s safe to say water is the more important commodity at this moment in time.

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Water pollution can come in many forms.  It can be chemical or biological in origin.  Other parts of the world experience a much tougher time when it comes to gathering water due to pollution, salinity, or scarcity; therefore, it’s hard for us to understand the daily plight of people in places like war-torn Gaza.

Gaza, or the more formerly known Gaza-strip, is a small Palestinian country which borders the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, and Israel. Whether you agree or disagree with their religious ideology, you cannot deny the human suffering that has gone on in that part of the world.  Living in a country that has seen the brutalities of war on a daily basis, now having a burgeoning water crisis is something these people wish to avoid.

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The population in Gaza is suffering from water pollution and the numbers inflicted are increasing every year.  Hospitals are seeing increases of almost 15% year over year of residents with chronic kidney issues, such as kidney stones and urinary tract infections.  Furthermore, lead and sulfur have been leaching into local water supplies from the remnants of ammunition fired during the war.  Agricultural runoff from pesticides is increasing the prevalence of cancer nationwide and fecal contamination from wastewater is infecting the nation’s children.  Doctors are seeing increases in childhood parasitic diseases, severe diarrhea, and malnutrition.

The water table is shrinking faster than it can be replenished. With three wars since 2008 and an unemployment rate hovering around 44 percent, the residents are turning more and more to self-sufficiency and when the water table drops, the sea water rushes in and increases the salinity.  This increased salinity strains outdated filtration plants and public water systems.  The most recent estimate suggests 97% of the water is unsafe to drink and the water may be undrinkable by 2020.

International aid is building a large desalination plant in Gaza.  In January, the largest desalination plant opened and is able to supply 75,000 people with safe water and that number will rise to 150,000 when the second phase is opened later in the year.  Additionally, other plants are slated to be built in the near future.  However, changing behavior surrounding water scarcity needs to change.  A public campaign to store rainwater and reuse water has started and is gaining traction.  Even with the desalination plants and the recycling of water, the water table needs to be replenished without being touched for this part of the world to meet its water needs for the foreseeable future.

The next time you go to the refrigerator to get a glass of water or walk to the convenience store to buy water, think about how good we have it here.  If you can relate to the ongoing humanitarian issues in Gaza, please donate to your favorite charity.

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Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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Phage therapy shown to kill drug-resistant superbug

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A team of scientists at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health have developed a form of “phage” therapy that could be a safe and effective alternative to antibiotic therapy for the treatment of patients with chronic cystic fibrosis lung infections.

For my readers who are wondering, “What are phages?” I will go into detail of these remarkable creatures and what their role is with bacteria.  But first, I am pretty sure that everyone at least once in their lifetime or more realistically, once a season, has come down with the flu.  The flu is caused by the influenza virus.

A virus is a parasite that only has one mission in life: self-replication.  Viruses are not technically alive because they need a host cell to replicate.  When a virus infects a cell, its genetic makeup hijacks the cell’s machinery and tells it to make more viruses.  Once the cell is full of viruses, the cell lyses and dies, and releases more viruses into the bloodstream looking for more cells to infect.  A phage (real name = bacteriophage) is a virus that infects bacteria.

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A phage looks like an alien creature from another planet.  The phage is made up of a bulbous head and a tail.  Once the phage lands on a bacterium, it injects its genomic makeup into the host in order for replication. This process is broken up into two major, yet different cycles: the lytic cycle and the lysogenic cycle.  The lytic cycle is highlighted by the hijacking of the bacterium in order to make duplicates of the phages.  Similar to the virus mentioned previously, once the cell is full of phages it explodes (lyses) and the phages look for more bacteria to infect.  The lysogenic cycle is when the phage inserts its own DNA into the bacterial chromosome.  This allows the phage to reproduce without killing the host cell.  The phage (now called a prophage) can be copied and passed on along with the cell’s own DNA.  Each cycle has pros and cons, but for this blog we will omit these and concentrate on the lytic cycle.

Now that we understand how phages work, let’s look closer into the groundbreaking discovery made by the scientists.  Because of the increased ineffectiveness of antibiotics due to over prescribing, chronic lung infections due to Pseudomonas aeruginosa have become more difficult to treat.  The team of scientists has shown that phage therapy is extremely effective in treating established multi-drug resistant P. aeruginosa strains. The study showed that phages are capable of killing the bacteria in infected lungs.  Especially promising was the effectiveness of treating patients who suffer from inherited disease cystic fibrosis.

By comparing the benefits of phage therapy versus antibiotic therapy, we find a clear winner.  Patients who suffer from cystic fibrosis undergo life-long treatment of various antibiotics and often, these antibiotics prove ineffective and have numerous side effects.  Phage therapy, on the other hand, carries no such stigma.  Phages only attack bacterial cells while leaving the host’s human cells intact.  This is promising since these antibiotic resistant “superbugs” are becoming more numerous and certain strains are only treatable with a cocktail (two or more) of antibiotics.

Hopefully, phage therapy will get the funding it needs in order to prove this strategy on a larger scale.  Unfortunately, big pharma is a multi-billion dollar proposition annually and there might be significant hurdles to overcome before this type of phage therapy becomes commonplace.

Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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Salmonella uses “nano-syringes” to hijack the host’s cells.

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Salmonella.  Ask anyone about salmonella and you will get an immediate response.  “I’ve had salmonella before.  I was keeled over in a fetal position for days”, they say.  Although there are many other forms of bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses, it seems salmonella has the most notoriety.

Salmonella is one of the most devastating bacterial infections worldwide.  Mortality rates hover around 2 million people per year.  If we look into statistics from the USA, we find approximately 1.2 million illnesses and about 450 deaths annually from this pathogen.  Think of how many illnesses go unreported.  When was the last time you called your local health department after catching the “24” hour flu/bug?  Probably never, so that number is actually quite higher.

Salmonella has over 2500 different serotypes (think strains, but with antigenic properties on the cell wall), but 32 of these are more well-known and much more studied.  The most recognized species are Salmonella enteritidis, S. enterica, S. typhi, and S. typhimurium.  Salmonella is more common in summer months and the core groups most susceptible for infection include:  Under 5 or over 65, the immunocompromised, and those on a steady regimen of medication that reduce stomach acid.

For such a devastating pathogen, the cell-hijacking machinery behind its malicious behavior was only recently understood.  One single protein allows the bacterium to both evade cells lining the intestine and hijack cellular functions to avoid destruction.  Salmonella causes disease when it takes control of cells lining the intestine by using its own specialized “nano-syringe”.  This syringe injects proteins that mimic the proteins of the host cell.

Let’s take a closer look into the deviousness of this process.  This protein, SopB, works with the plasma membrane to coax the cell into taking in the pathogen.

“Knock, knock.  Who’s there?  Salmonella protein. Salmonella protein, who?  I’m sorry.  I meant, pizza guy.  Sure.  Come on in!”

Once inside, the host cell wraps it in a vesicle.  That’s like inviting in your killer and offering them a bullet proof vest.

Secondly, once inside the vesicle the pathogenic protein evades the lysosome (an organelle) that degrades proteins that are no longer needed.  It does this by moving from the plasma membrane to the membrane of the vesicle that contains the bacterium.  Oh yeah… You didn’t think the bacterium didn’t get welcomed in with open arms, did you?

Once the bacterium and the protein are wrapped up all snug like a bug in a rug, Salmonella coaxes the cell to mark, SopB, with a tag that will identify it as a host cell.

This “nano-syringe” deserves a more rounded explanation of how it works.  Yale university and the University of Texas Medical School-Houston created a cryo-electron tomography to reveal the molecular structure of how this device works.

This syringe, or the more aptly named Type III secretion machine, features an injection point on one end and a rotating staging area (think bullets in a revolver) on the bottom where proteins are rotated and selected for the delivery into target cells.  “The device is like a stinger and injects ready-made bacterial proteins into mammalian cells to commandeer them for the benefit of the pathogen” (Jorge Galan).

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(image credit: Yale university)

It’s fascinating to think all this goes on in a microscopic world that we rarely give a second thought about.  Bacteriology is an interesting field within Microbiology that merits further reading.  It highlights the importance of scientific grants and the pursuit of knowledge.  By further understanding this “nano-syringe”, researchers could devise new anti-infective strategies against a variety of bacterial pathogens.

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Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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Germs on the NY subway. Scores of mysterious microbes found

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If you live in a large metropolitan city, you probably have ridden on mass transportation at least once in your life.

If you live in New York City, riding on the subway has been entrenched in your life for as long as you can remember.

But have you ever given thought to how much bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses are traveling in those filthy combines of the subway car?  I am sure most of us have given a passing thought to it, but what kind of microbes are inside the subway?

The answers might surprise you.  Read on… if you dare!

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College set out to find out what is hiding on the underground rail system and found some serious surprises, both good and bad.  There are about 5.5 million weekly riders on the N.Y. subway and thankfully, most of the microbes discovered were not as contagious as one would imagine.  Nevertheless, what they found are typically the same microbes we carry on us, and in us, in our lifetime.

There were 637 known species of bacteria, virus, and fungus discovered in the lab cultures.  Most of those discovered do not cause illness.  They did discover enough yeast to open a small microbrewery.  They found a lot of microbes associated with the food that people were eating on the subway, mostly pizza.  Hey… they do say NY pizza is an experience of its own so now we know why.

Only about 12% of the bacteria collected could be implicated in causing disease and about half of the DNA collected could be linked to known pathogens.  However, the most telling statistic of the study was about 48% of the genetic data discovered did not match any known organism.  This just reinforces how vast and unexplored the microbiome is.

Here’s the part where the news gets bad, or more disappointing depending on how you look at it.  The remaining 52% of the known organisms came from distinct parts of the human body.

1.6% of bacteria were associated with the eyes

6.5% of bacteria were associated with the mouth

9.9% of bacteria were associated with breathing (found in airways)

29% of bacteria were associated with the skin

20% of bacteria were associated with the urogenital tract

32.3% of bacteria were associated with the gastrointestinal tract.

Okay, I don’t know about you but the last two percentages made me throw up in my mouth a little.  If you have bacteria from the urogenital and gastrointestinal areas of the human body, that is saying these people are NOT WASHING THEIR HANDS after using the bathroom!!

Hopefully, most of my readers are washing their hands once they are done using the bathroom.  If not, please do.  It’s a gentle reminder to practice good hygiene.  Remember, cleanliness is next to godliness.

After working in a hospital, I developed a habit of washing my hands that I still carry with me today.  After using the restroom, it is advised to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds using the hottest water that you can tolerate.  A good guide is to sing the “Happy Birthday” song while you scrub your hands, paying close attention to finger pads and underneath your nails.  Ever since that time, I noticed a drop in the amount of times I have caught the flu or the common cold.  My friends always comment on my “strong” immune system and although I don’t deny that claim due to good diet, I attribute some of it to how many times I wash my hands.  I probably wash my hands about 20 to 30 times daily. It’s a good habit to get into and the benefits outweigh the occasional dry hands.

Leave me a comment if you are a germophobe like me!

Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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